It was really fun to record these three shows — at Berkeley’s legendary Fantasy Studios, no less — and I hope it’s a really entertaining experience to listen to them.
Red Diaper Baby
The concert film of Red Diaper Baby, beautifully directed by Doug Pray for the Sundance Channel, is now available as a direct download from Amazon! You can either buy it or rent it (for a week) — either way … wow!! I mean, it all feels so 21st-century (among other centuries)!
In his autobiography, Ben Franklin tells how, as a young man, he carried rolls of paper to his printshop in a wheelbarrow. The point — as with so many of his actions — was self-publicity: He made sure to do the wheelbarrowing when the streets were full of potential customers, so they could see what a hard worker he was. (It must not have been much fun to be one of Franklin’s competitors: When someone else in Philadelphia put out an almanac, the next edition of Ben’s own famous almanac printed a supposed prediction of the exact date of his rival’s death.)
Today I might have cut a Willy Lomanesque figure as I rolled a big suitcase up Shattuck Ave. during a steamy Berkeley afternoon. But in my own fevered imagination I was a latter-day Franklin, as the suitcase was carrying boxes of my Red Diaper Baby DVD from a storage unit to my downtown office for (that lovely word!) fulfillment of various orders. As the grandson of a successful store-to-store hardware salesman who also happened to be a communist, I feel a special pride in “moving units” of my communist coming-of-age story (directed by the great documentarian Doug Pray). And as a guy who looks like Ben, I feel proud to be a small-businessowner.
Progressive entrepreneurs of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your bootstraps.
For the next couple of weeks, in a burst of irrational midsummer exuberance, I’m offering DVD’s of my Red Diaper Baby concert film for only $14.95 each — $10 off the usual price. Would Karl Marx approve? I imagine so.
To get to my online store, click here.
It isn’t easy — at least for someone like me. You move forward into the unknown, guided by those who have gone before. They can tell you what it was like for them, but that doesn’t mean it will be the same for you. You need support, you need the right tools — and you need to find the local Post Office.
Usually, orders at my online store are fulfilled by my fabulous business associate, Dana Dizon. But a recent eblast offering a $10 discount (still available, by the way, using the code BLAST1) resulted, happily, in more orders than we had expected — especially of the DVD of Haiku Tunnel, the movie I made with my brother Jacob several years ago. And as it happens, Dana had sent most of our stash to Portland Center Stage, where I am doing a run of my show Ben Franklin: Unplugged. (After each performance, I plop myself in the theater lobby and kindly offer to sell my stuff to departing audience members.)
So Dana called me and — in as calm a voice as she could muster — told me I’d have to send out some of the orders myself. Now, you have to understand that I have, well, issues about mailing things out; in fact, that is exactly what instigates the comic-neurotic plot of Haiku Tunnel: my character’s boss gives him a bunch of very important letters to mail out, and he doesn’t. Now I’m the boss — and yet, strangely, still with many of the personality flaws I used to exhibit in my secretarial days. (Meet the new boss — same as the old assistant. Yikes!)
But people had paid for their books and DVDs, and needed to get them right away. So, over the phone, Dana walked me through the online process by which I could print out customers’ packing slips (two copies, one for our records) and shipping labels (cut at the dotted line; staple the bottom half to our copy of the packing slip), and log all these actions as having been completed.
“Pick up a bunch of envelopes and boxes from the Post Office,” Dana instructed.
“Don’t tape over the barcode!” she added. “They don’t like that.”
A worried silence from my end.
“You can do this!” she exhorted.
I could tell Dana was concerned. She does everything incredibly well, and likes to do things herself. If I messed up, she would feel responsible (I know, she shouldn’t — but that’s just how she is). I took a deep breath, then headed over to Portland Center Stage to grab some copies of my merch and use their printer — and, as it turned out, their computer, their packing tape, and of course their stapler (as we all know by now that the bottom half of the mailing label must be stapled to our copy of the packing slip!). Many of the theater’s astonishingly nice and helpful staff members showed me how to find everything — not to mention get over my usual skittishness around Windows computers (yeah, I’m a Mac guy, even though I look much more like the PC fellow in those commercials).
As I was applying the tape to the packages (though not over the barcode!), I heard a loud thrumming from somewhere nearby. Eventually I realized what this was: the sound of a typical Portland rainstorm hitting the skylight. So now I would have to carry all this stuff to the Post Office through the rain! Postal workers do this all the time, I know — they’ve even been known to deal with sleet and snow; then again, they also go postal.
Fortunately, there was a respite from the downpour just as I left the theater. Holding the packages label-side down — in case of any unexpected drippage — I made my way to the (fortunately nearby) Post Office. I needed to hurry, as Dana had been very clear on the phone that I needed to actually mail the packages on the same day as I had printed out the mailing lables; otherwise, the entire global financial system would collapse (or something). On line at the Post Office, I briefly became entranced by a display of bubble wrap (you have to admit, there’s nothing quite as marvelous as bubble wrap) — only to be told, somewhat gruffly, by the woman behind me that the next window was now open. I handed my pile of merch to the postal worker (a grandmotherly looking woman with a tattoo on her forearm — god, Portland is cool!) and stared at her in fear and anticipation as she ran her scanner thingie over all my (untaped-over) barcodes. She nodded at me.
“Everything okay?” I asked, tremulously.
I felt a burst of endorphin-powered euphoria. I had completed the task, even though it involved more than one step! Haiku Tunnel DVDs, as well as Red Diaper Baby books and DVDs, were now on their way to all the incredible people who had ordered them.
I texted Dana that it was all over. A moment later I got a text back from her, thanking me (even though, of course, I should have been thanking her for setting everything up so well — typical Dana). If there were an emoticon for relief, I’m pretty sure she would have added it.
Then I headed back to my hotel, bathed in a warm glow of satisfaction and relief. Fulfillment achieved — by me, for once.
Just had one of the strangest experiences of my life: hearing the Rotary Club of Portland sing “Little Boxes.” As a red diaper baby from New York, now calling Berkeley my home, I was expecting at least a soupçon of disorientation at my first-ever Rotary Club meeting — but it never would have occurred to me that the proceedings would kick off with a lusty rendition of Malvina Reynolds‘s famous song lampooning comfortable bourgeois culture.
Adding to the weirdness, I was dressed as Ben Franklin. This was the idea of the fantastically named Devereaux Dion, the club’s current president. He and his wife had attended an early performance in my current (and very fun) run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage. I remember spotting them from the stage: a handsome, middle-aged couple sitting in the front row. I had snuck covert glances in their direction, to see if they were enjoying the show; at some point in the first act I finally saw Dev smile, and relaxed a bit. Afterwards, Dev came up and introduced himself to me — following up with an email asking whether I might be interested in attending an upcoming Rotary Club meeting as “Ben.”
I should have warned him that I’m actually not a very good Franklin impersonator — in a way, Unplugged is about how I learned to love Ben without being able to embody him — but I was too delighted by his invitation to bring that up. So today at noon (sharp — these Rotarians are nothing if not punctual) I found myself in a fancy ballroom in downtown Portland, in full Franklin regalia, preparing to recite a short excerpt from my show. That’s when Dev brought this guy up to the lectern — apparently they start each of their meetings with a sing-along — who led the assembled Rotarians in an enthusiastic version of “Little Boxes” (they had the lyrics up on a screen). The irony was not lost on anyone — in fact, it was celebrated: the fellow leading the recital introduced the song as being a parody of the kinds of folks who were in that very room.
I was stunned — a countercultural anthem was being, as it were, co-opted by “The Man.” Turning to Trisha Mead, PCS’s delightful P.R. and publications manager (who had, thankfully, accompanied me to this gig), I said something about this moment being confirmation that not only had “my” people lost, but the winners were now actually able to gloat and joke about it! She replied, with an understanding smile, that she could certainly imagine I’d be feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.
But here’s the thing: these Rotarians were winning me over. As I understand it (dimly, to be sure), the Rotary Club is about business leaders “doing well by doing good,” as Franklin liked to put it. (Or maybe it was “doing good by doing well.” Oh, well. That’s why I don’t have an almanac.) They contribute to many worthy causes — including, I’m pretty sure, the kinds of theaters I perform in. They educate themselves on important causes of the day: the fascinating main presentation of this luncheon was by two creators of a potential totally “green” high rise in Portland. (One of the presenters commented drily that not all architects design “boxes.”) And, yes, they help one another in their business endeavors. Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin launched a club, called the “Junto,” for doing these very things. So these people are living the lives that Ben advocated for a self-fulfilled America.
And who am I — the Paine in the ass who smiles smugly while observing these high-toned ceremonies? Well, not exactly: I’m a businessman myself now — my company, Quixotic Projects, owns my intellectual property (insert your joke here) and occupies a great deal of my time, energy, and hopes. I could learn a lot from these businesspeople. Plus, I’m a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission — and this green-building presentation was of tremendous interest to me in that regard. So you could say that I’m a potential Rotarian myself.
And yet, and yet … I’m also still … me. My aesthetics and politics — derived from the Old Left of New York, honed in the ’80s punk scene of Boston, and buffed to a Free Speech gleam in my beloved Bay Area — would probably tend to diverge a great deal from many (though perhaps not all) of those in that ballroom. Of that I have little doubt.
After the Rotary luncheon, we walked back to the theater in a thoughtful silence. Eventually, I said to Trisha, “Well, it looks like the Revolution is definitely over.”
Her eyes twinkled. “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.
Maybe she’s right — and perhaps, when the time comes, Rotarians and red diaper babies will march shoulder-to-shoulder into a democratic, sustainable future that would make Malvina smile.
In experimenting with these little video podcasts, I feel I might be able to offer the viewer a sense of my daily life — only with less editing, and in greater definition than how I actually see things. This installment is made up of footage from June 2, when — in a rare display of social-butterfly-osity — I went to two parties, on both sides of the San Francisco Bay.
First was a gathering honoring my pal Ethan Canin, one of our great writers (start, perhaps, with The Palace Thief, his collection of “long stories”). Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) was there, being mordantly witty as always (and no, I’m not going to look up “mordant” — I’m just going to assume it really means what I think it means!). Next was what turned out to be a lovely event at Saul’s Deli in Berkeley: a “DVD release party” for the concert film of my Red Diaper Baby monologue.
The Saul’s screening was so much fun that we’re doing another one — tomorrow (Tues., July 28), actually, at 8 p.m. This time we’ll be watching Haiku Tunnel, the narrative film that I did with my brother Jacob (and many, many other wonderful people). Amazingly, Haiku got into Sundance and then was distributed by Sony Classics. Now it will attain its most natural state: accompanying matzoh brie. (There will be a $10 suggested donation, to help us make our new movie, Love & Taxes.)
Anyhow, here’s the video podcast:
The just-out issue of Tikkun magazine has a lovely mini-review of the Red Diaper Baby DVD — available exclusively on my website’s online store (isn’t it cool how a child of Communists can evolve into a perpetual hawker of his own commodities?) — in their “Tikkun Recommends” section (you have to scroll down a bit):
Red Diaper Baby (available at joshkornbluth.com) is Josh Kornbluth’s hilarious rendition of his own process of freeing himself from the pathologies of his communist parents. It is obsessed with sex, politics, and neuroses. You can’t help but love Kornbluth by the time it is over, and you can’t help but learn a lot about growing up in America in the 1960s.
I’m guessing my still-Communist mom will enjoy the last sentence somewhat more than the first — but I love the whole thing, perhaps even pathologically so.
I’m thrilled to announce that my website has been treated to a fabulous makeover, through the genius of designer Joe Pignati. Please check it out — and give me your feedback, pro and con, by clicking on the “comments” link below this blog entry. We’ll keep amending and tinkering the site based on what we hear back from visitors.
And please also check out my brand-new online store — which you can reach through my website, or by clicking here. You will find there — available for the first time — the fantastic concert-film DVD of my monologue Red Diaper Baby, along with the Red Diaper Baby book (which contains the text of that piece plus two others, Haiku Tunnel and The Mathematics of Change). If you buy both the DVD and the book, we’ll throw in a complimentary mini-canister of baby powder (a product that features prominently in Red Diaper Baby).